Beyond the Troubles

There are great opportunities for designers in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland right now. Sarah Woods checks out the local scene

Strong signs of peace in Northern Ireland are emerging. Business and the economy is booming, construction is exploding, and bars and restaurants are bustling. At the same time, relations and collaborations between the north and the Republic have never been better.

Design is one industry that is noticeably burgeoning on both sides of the border.

Since the beginning of the year alone, Silent Valley, a popular tourist attraction and mountain park near Belfast, has had its visitor centre revamped, while an exhibition about the Titanic in the city received a modern redesign, with excellent visitor results. Both were designed by Parker Butler.

The Crafts Council of Ireland in the Republic is developing a fresh brand image, while in Omagh, one of the previously most troubled of Northern Irish regions, a modern arts centre is being developed, with brand image and identity by Mitchell Kane Associates.

At present, a huge amount of time and energy is being invested in design in Ireland. One such organisation that is blowing the industry’s trumpet is The Centre for Design Innovation in Sligo, a ten-year international programme set up by former Design Council director Toby Scott last year (DW 2 November 2006). The centre aims to promote design effectiveness and innovation to businesses and the public sector.

David Tormey, research manager at the centre, is responsible for developing the case for design within the north and south of the country. He has recently completed a survey on SMEs, looking at design and how it can help business performances. He believes that Irish companies that use design will experience more success than those that do not, and they are more likely to develop new products and services.

According to Tormey, things are improving, but there is still some way to go. ‘I am invoking a lot of general managers in Ireland to recognise how design is looked at – driving businesses to compete on the basis of design. A large part of the problem is that in the latter parts of the 1990s there was the Celtic Tiger, and the economy has grown extremely rapidly. Construction boomed in Ireland and now we are starting to experience a slowdown, manufacturers are mostly feeling the pinch and this has all had a knock-on effect on all industries. Ireland’s competitiveness is slowly eroding. People realise the writing is on the wall for their own business. We need to support them and emphasise how to use design and be more innovative, to recognise the power of design,’ he says.

Another professional body representing the interests of Irish designers is The Institute of Designers in Ireland. Its chief executive officer Rina Whyte supports observations that design has increased and puts the expansion down to a rise in the buildings industry, resulting in an influx in interior design and branding for new companies. She also points out that there is more overseas travel, raising awareness of international design.

‘We are now a service industry. Manufacturers are going and there is a slow haemorrhage as more companies move away to where the labour is cheaper,’ says Whyte. ‘But there are a huge number of new-builds, meaning new companies move into the market. We have got a very educated workforce and the Government is investing in skills. Design has increased enormously and more Government ministers, even the President, are coming to our events and taking notice, but they do need to push it even further up the agenda.’

Northern Ireland is becoming almost unrecognisable compared to how it was perceived in the 1980s and 1990s. It is only a couple of weeks since Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams sat together and agreed on a power-sharing executive.

As recently as seven years ago, Belfast was a described as a ghost town in the evening. Now it has a thriving nightlife and a relaxed atmosphere.

According to Amanda Barrett, senior designer at Belfast consultancy Parker Butler, if you stand in the middle of the city today you notice the number of cranes surrounding you. ‘The need for 3D and graphic design has increased dramatically. That is for two reasons: the construction in Northern Ireland and the increase in tourism in Belfast. The peace process has had a huge impact on the region. The number of visitors to the Titanic exhibition has gone right up from last year, and most were tourists.’

An indication of how healthy design is in the north is the amount of new start-up groups. Sean Mitchell of 16-year-old Mitchell Kane Associates has seen the various peaks and troughs of the industry. ‘I think that peace gives design increased traction. It provides hope, inspiration and confidence. New political order is happening in the north, which is very historical and dramatic. I believe when we are alerted to that we can capitalise on the opportunities. This and investment bring a heightened ambition for design.’

• The Centre for Design Innovation, set up last year by Toby Scott, is a ten-year programme with funding of €1.25m (£840 000) from Enterprise Ireland, an agency of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Employment
• Institute of Designers in Ireland, a professional body representing the interests of Irish designers
• Irish Design Week takes place in November and is organised by the Institute of Designers in Ireland

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